The Northampton Wools Knitting Book
by Linda A. Daniels
Greetings from Knit Café
by Suzan Mischer
I moved to Maine in 1998 after living on the West Coast for the majority of my adult life. I thought I was prepared for the change, but the subtle cultural differences between coasts still surprised me. Despite the increasing homogenization of American culture, people really were different. They wore different styles and colors of clothes, they socialized in different ways, they approached careers and risks differently, they even drove different kinds of cars—my sleek black Toyota sedan was immediately conspicuous in a sea of Subaru wagons.
Eight years later the contrast of the coasts is still evident in two new knitting books written by yarn store owners. One is from Los Angeles, the other from Northampton, Massachusetts. One is filled with tropical colors and whimsical styles, the other with earthy New England hues and comfortably classic designs. Yet both embody a similar message about how one person followed her dream and now helps engender a very special sense of community through knitting on a daily basis.
A Longtime Favorite
On the East Coast we have Northampton Wools. For more than a quarter century, this yarn institution has been located in the Western Massachusetts town of Northampton, home of Smith College. Linda Daniels had worked at Northampton Wools almost since its inception and, in 1998, became its owner. In this book, she shares more than 35 of the shop's most popular, tried-and-true patterns from over the decades.
The styles tend to be classic, sometimes conservative New England, sometimes a little more contemporary à la Eileen Fisher. You have pullovers and cardigans for men and women, hats, scarves, socks, fingerless mitts and such, plus several easy pullovers and cardigans for kids and cute items for babies.
The models are real people from the community—a midwife, a man they call the "Parking Csar" of Northampton, a muralist, the secretary of the men's basketball team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and even the UPS driver got his moment in the limelight.
You have the distinct sense that these are real people and that they actually wear these items in real life. The book is published by Countryman Press, which is based in Woodstock, Vermont—so the whole book is a distinctly New England production.
Yet despite the comfy New England setting, this book actually drops more names than the next one in this review. That's because Daniels was tapped to design several sweaters for The Cider House Rules, including ones worn by Charleze Theron (one of which is included in this book) and Michael Caine.
On the West Coast we have Suzan Mischer, previously a VP of specials and documentaries at CBS who left her job to stay home and raise her children. That's when she rekindled her passion for knitting, fell in love with the lifestyle and culture surrounding knitting, and opened her own dream yarn store in 2002. It's called Knit Café and it occupies a 900-square-foot space on Melrose Avenue.
When I read the words "Los Angeles" and "CBS" I immediately feared this would be another hip celebrity knitter book, but it isn't. Mischer navigates these risky waters with delicate tact and sincerity that won me over quickly. Sure, she mentions black-tie galas and writer/producer clients who work on prominent shows, only in the context of describing creative people who really understand and are grateful for the solace that knitting brings them.
She seems to delight in watching knitting level the playing field among her customers. "I'm no longer surprised..." she writes, "when I walk in and see people I'd never expect to even know each other engrossed in conversation, like a man wearing a dress discussing cooking tips with a Russian grandmother and a young film student."
Having held a high-pressure job herself, where "mistakes were very costly and people who made them were looked at critically," Mischer sees even greater value in the space she has created for people. "I find great comfort and joy in having a place of work now where I and everyone else can make mistakes without gigantic consequences, where some mistakes can even bring on huge belly laughs."
The photostyling on this book is exquisite. The photographs (by Victoria Pearson) make me feel like I'm inside Roald Dahl's enormous peach from James and the Giant Peach. Warm, ripe, almost glowing, and populated with a circle of wonderful and unusual (and extremely photogenic) friends.
The patterns in this book are clean, colorful, and original. I knit the La La Scarf this spring and people still comment on it every time I wear it. Some err on the whimsical side, but never beyond utility. For example, the Computer Keyboard Cover is silly but it really would make a great gift.
Other patterns are more streamlined and classic, such as the Huge Triangle Shawl, Comfy Socks, and, my personal favorite, the Lush Hoodie. And yet another group is perhaps best suited to California's warm-weather climate—a sleeveless lace Red Carpet Gown and Kate's Pretty Pink Dress in soft brushed mohair.
There's even a knitted bikini, although none of Mischer's customers offered to model it for the book.
Mischer laces the book with stories about her shop, from its inception to its employees and customers, plus tales of her Grandma Kolb, an avid knitter who knit the Icelandic sweater Mischer wears in her picture on the book flap. The patterns themselves are designed by talented friends and business associates. (Pattern corrections can be found here.)
Finally, lest UPS feel underrepresented on the West Coast, fear not: This book also includes a photo of Joe the UPS Guy in the acknowledgements at the back.